Long March 7 Y8 launches with the Tianzhou-7 cargo vehicle

Tianzhou-7: A Milestone in China’s Space Station Program

China's Tianzhou-7, carrying essential supplies and technology, successfully launches and efficiently docks with the Tiangong Space Station

On January 17, 2024, at 14:27 UTC, a cargo spacecraft from China Tianzhou-7 was successfully launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site by Long March 7 Y8 rocket.

Thereafter, the docking with the Tiangong space station was done after reaching the scheduled orbit in just over three hours. This is a mission geared at offering necessary supplies to the astronauts while onboard the spacecraft.

Long March 7 Y8 launches with the Tianzhou-7 cargo vehicle
Long March 7 Y8 launches with the Tianzhou-7 cargo vehicle. Credits: CMS/CASC

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The launch and docking

The Tianzhou-7 cargo spacecraft began its mission aboard the Long March 7 rocket, which was prepared and assembled at the facility operated by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Recognized for its dependability and suitability for manned space missions, this medium to heavy-launch vehicle was readied for its pivotal role in the mission.

Once assembled, the Long March 7 was transported to the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, China. This site is recognized for hosting significant launches, including those related to the Chinese Space Station program.

Long March 7 assembly facility
Long March 7 assembly facility. Credits: unknown user on Weibo

At precisely 14:27:30 UTC, the Long March 7 rocket initiated its ascent. The launch process involved the activation and subsequent deactivation of the boosters, which were then separated from the rocket.

The first stage of the rocket continued its burn until about 181.8 seconds into the flight, after which it was deactivated and separated from the rest of the vehicle. The fairing, which shielded the Tianzhou-7 during its journey through Earth’s atmosphere, was then jettisoned.

The second stage engines, two of which were non-gimballed, were deactivated, and the Tianzhou-7 spacecraft successfully separated from the rocket. Following its successful launch and separation, the Tianzhou-7 embarked on its journey to dock with the Chinese Space Station. After a few hours, it completed its docking with the station, marking the completion of a vital resupply mission.


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The evolution of chinese space missions

On January 17, 2024, the cargo spacecraft implemented a 3-hour rapid docking plan, a first for the Chinese space station. This change in strategy from the previous 2-hour and 6.5-hour rapid docking plans is indicative of the technological maturity achieved by the Chinese space program.

Looking ahead, Chief designer Xu Lijie announced that next-gen cargo and crew transport rockets (Long March 10/CZ10 single booster) will be ready for flight by 2025 or 2026, indicating further advancements in China’s space program.

In addition, the launch frequency of the cargo spacecraft has been recently reduced, moving from two missions per year to three missions every two years. This change was made possible thanks to the increased payload capacity of the spacecraft.

To explain these changes, the Human Spaceflight News Propaganda Center has launched a series of scientific outreach videos called “Tianzhou Classroom”. These videos provide a comprehensive overview of the new capabilities and innovations introduced with the new series of cargo spacecraft.


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The Tianzhou-7’s cargo supplies

The mission was one of the major ones since out of approximately 1.75 tons of propellant carried by the spacecraft, 700kg were supposed to be used for refuelling at the space station. The cargo packed in the spacecraft consisted of 263 items with their total weight being approximately 5.6 tons. This included 2.4 tons of daily necessities for the astronauts aboard the space station.

Tianzhou-7 cargo spaceship being assembled
Tianzhou-7 cargo spaceship being assembled. Credits: CASC

The Tianzhou-7 also carried a cubesat of 6U by the name “Nanjing” constructed by the Nanjing Vocational Institute of Mechatronic Technology. In addition to the principle cargo, this shows that the mission is two-pronged since it is not only aimed at facilitating resupply but further research activities.

Tianzhou-7 is carrying almost 90 kilograms of fresh fruit apart from essential supplies such as clothing and food for the astronauts, Chinese state media announced. Special attention was paid to morale among the astronauts, for a Lunar New Year gift package will be included in the cargo, as well as gifts for the crew exchanged between the Shenzhou-17 and Shenzhou-18 missions.


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China’s 2024 missions

2024 will be a very important year for China as it plans several landmark missions in space. They will include the launch of the Tianzhou 8 and the crewed missions Shenzhou-18 and 19 that are geared to maintain momentum in China’s space program as well as ensure human presence in space.

China is also preparing for a lunar far-side sample return mission by the year 2024. The Chinese Chang’e 6 lunar mission involves a breakdown of less than two months on a journey to bring back scientifically valuable samples from the Moon to Earth. The mission will aim for a landing within the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin in the southern part of the Apollo crater, a giant, ancient impact basin from the moon’s depths.

These coming missions, only paired with the successful completion of the Tianzhou-7 mission, are an indication that China is still committed to boosting its capability in exploring space. The success witnessed in these missions will go a long way toward boosting China’s position among the major players in space exploration.


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Federico Airoldi

Federico Airoldi

Coder, developer and content creator. I am dedicated to spreading my love of space exploration and inspiring others to join me in the pursuit of new frontiers. Page owner of Airo_spaceflight.

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